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Juno

Jason Reitman's Juno strikes me as an important movie — one that may both inspire and transform American adolescence. In Juno McGuff, Mr Reitman and scriptwriter Diablo Cody have created a new and attractive role model, and in Ellen Page they have found the ideal embodiment of their heroine. Ms Page has the looks of Emmanuelle Bιart and the wit of Janeane Garofalo, an unbeatable combination for high-school comedy. In Juno's world, it doesn't hurt to be very, very smart. It's perhaps just wishful thinking on my part, but Juno suggests to me that American teenagers might conceivably recover from the cultural disease that makes them, collectively at least, not only cruel (which can't be avoided) but dumb.

What could be dumber than an unintended pregnancy? That's precisely the crack that Juno makes only once, when Juno's father, Mac (J K Simmons), shakes his head and confesses that he always thought that his daughter was girl who "knew when to say 'when'." Juno doesn't say anything in reply, but her look reminds us that brains aren't everything in this world, and that even brilliant people make mistakes. There's a big difference, though, between making mistakes and being dumb. Dumb people are notoriously slow to know that they have made mistakes. Juno, who is not dumb, doesn't waste a minute regretting her mistake; she moves right on to solutions. When abortion turns out not to be the answer — Juno's call — she resolves on adoption. So much for the plot. As in Knocked Up, we see that moviemakers are learning to turn nature's nine-month course into an intriguing plot device: there's plenty of time for interesting reactions.

Juno's stepmother, Bren (Allison Janney), for example, threatens to be a pain in the neck at first, when she hears about the pregnancy, but she turns out to be a good-natured middle-aged woman who, remembering what it was like to be a teenager, becomes Juno's staunch champion. Both Bren and Mac move very quickly from the surprise of discovering that Juno is "sexually active" — a phrase that is quite rightly made to sound ludicrous — to acceptance of the consequences. The child's father, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a bright but shy track star, takes longer to figure out his new role, but that's largely because Juno does nothing to make it easy for him. If Paulie looks like a deer in headlights for most of the movie, that's because he can't tell what kind of vehicle is bearing down on him. Juno could have made more of the screwball romance that has led to the heroine's predicament, but, as with the other things that Juno might have done, we don't feel shortchanged that it doesn't. Mr Cody's screenplay, an extremely mindful guest, is determined not to wear out its welcome.

The high school angle is agreeably understated. Aside from some humorously dismal hallway scenes and a droll chemistry lab diversion, Juno takes place outside of school. There are no teachers — or at any rate none with speaking parts. Interestingly, Juno's bosom buddy, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), is a cheerleader with a weakness for instructors. Leah's friendship neatly short-circuits the mean-girl possibilities of the story. The only other student is Steve (Daniel Clark), a jock who can't admit his interest in Juno because it wouldn't be cool. His loss.

The most important reactions to Juno's pregnancy occur right where they ought to, in the couple to whom Juno intends to surrender her baby. Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) occupy a socio-economic niche several rungs above the McGuffs, and it's no accident that they live in a development called "Glacial Estates." Their antiseptic McMansion screams malfunction, as of course does Vanessa's unfulfilled yearning to have a child. (Not only are she and Mark infertile as a couple, but they have already had one adoption deal fall through.) Surely the most interesting thing about Juno is how far it manages to wander from comedy central in its presentation of the Loring marriage. Unconsciously drawn to Mark by their shared love of music, Juno takes to dropping in when Vanessa isn't around. This is another mistake — Bren's warning against it is a very grown-up scene — and one that can safely be attributed to Juno's youth: she simply hasn't met any interesting people with whom it would be inappropriate to consort. When the glacier turns into an avalanche, Juno makes the right decision, although we don't really know how she does it until the end of the picture. A beautiful scene, set in of all places a mall, prepares us for such happy ending as the makers of Juno deem realistic. In a scene that really merits Oscar consideration, Ms Garner's Vanessa overcomes the bewilderment of her position (wanting Juno's baby, but not Juno herself) and is rewarded with the most natural thing in the world — only here it has all the force of a miracle.

In case we were wondering, Juno tells us that her father did indeed name her after the consort of Zeus, who was, according to Juno, "really beautiful." That may be — the myths don't stress it, as I recall. What they do stress is her infertility. The filmmaker's just may have chosen the wrong goddess. "Athena" would have been in every way more apt. (January 2008)

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